Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Time to Kill?

Hank Phillippi Ryan (Guest Blogger)

It was The Clue in the Old Clock that did it. I read that first Nancy Drew when I was–maybe ten or eleven years old? And I knew I wanted to be–not Nancy herself, (although that would have been cool: roadster, good hair, boyfriend, none of which I had at the time) but a mystery writer. I barreled through The Clue in the Diary (which I thought was Clue in the Dairy, and read the whole thing baffled about when the cows were going to show up), then went on to devour every Sherlock Holmes story, and I mean every one, and then Agatha Christie. And the rest is...well, then my career took a turn. Thirty years ago, I got my first job as a TV reporter. And I’m still on the on the air.

But as my very first mystery novel, Prime Time, is now on bookstore shelves, I keep realizing how being an investigative reporter is a lot like being a mystery writer. You’re looking for clues, tracking down evidence, putting the puzzle pieces together, searching for the bad guys, and trying to find justice in the end.

But two elements are different. Big things.
One, as a TV reporter you can’t make anything up. Fiction by a reporter—is bad news.
Two, as a TV reporter you don’t have to kill anyone. Murder by a reporter—is also bad news.

Writing murder mysteries as I do now? You’ve gotta make it all up. And you’ve got to kill someone. Or several someones. In every book.
Making it up? No problem for me. I see almost a movie unreeling in my brain. Sometimes it feels as if I’m just transcribing what I see and hear.
Killing someone? You know, it’s a problem, I must admit to you. Strangely, I’m finding that difficult to do.

Okay, they’re fictional people. No one really gets hurt, there are no actual grieving families, no real blood or secret graves or bedrooms spattered with red or disgusting maggot-filled corpses or hacked-off body parts in hidden surprising places.

And I really don’t mind reading about murders. From the grisliest serial killings to the most lady-like poisonings. All good. Hannibal Lecter? Wish I had thought of him. That guy who put the moth in victims’ mouths? Cool idea. The Orient Express? The Speckled Band? Genius.

But for me. Actually plotting to murder someone--even though it’s just via Microsoft Word—has developed into an interestingly self-analytical exercise. It gives me—pause. Am I—a wimp?

I think—I’ll only kill people who are really bad. Hmmm. Not so interesting. Or people who absolutely no one will miss. Boring. Who are sick already? Nope. Who no one will care about? Then why read the book? So I kill off someone who is critical, and who people care about, and who is important to the plot. They’re just paper people. But I still feel kind of—sorry for them.

A pal of mine—whose thriller I’m sure will someday be on all of our nightstands—let me read an early draft. In the opening scene, 700 people get blown up by terrorists in an office building. Then the main character—who had narrowly escaped--went home and had a glass of wine and made dinner. I said—you know, you’ve described an unforgettable and terrifying occurrence, one that would be devastating to all involved and the ramifications would be endless. Are you sure you need to kill off 700 people? And wouldn’t the main character be, um, a lot more upset?

And the writer said: yeah, Hank, but they’re all fictional people. And the main character didn’t die.

I said: why not have them all almost die? The bomb almost goes off, and they all escape. That’s just as scary, even scarier, right?

The writer was perplexed. But for me, as you can tell, I still can’t get those 700 fictional dead people out of my head.

In writing Prime Time, I had to face committing murder. When veteran TV reporter Charlie McNally discovers that some of that annoying SPAM clogging her computer is more than just cyber junk mail—but I’d better just let you read it for yourself. And see who I got up the gumption to kill off.

Did you see the very thought-provoking movie Stranger Than Fiction? In it, a writer discovered that what came out of her typewriter really happened. The main character heard—and experienced—everything she was creating. Finally, he appeared at her door to beg her to stop writing about his death. And she was haunted with wondering—what if the other characters she killed had been real?

Sometimes it almost does feel a bit like that. Haunting. Do you worry about the dead guys? Could you kill someone—in a book, I mean? Am I—a wimp? Does murder get any easier? Even on the page?

You know, I don’t think so. But I’m going to keep at it. Because for a mystery writer, just like a reporter, it’s so satisfying to be able to tell a good story.

Investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan’s dozens of awards include 24 Emmys. She is currently is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. PRIME TIME, her first mystery features investigative reporter Charlie McNally. The second in the series, FACE TIME, will appear in October 2007.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Interview with author Barbara D'Amato

By Lonnie Cruse

I met Barbara D'Amato last February at the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago. I was quite nervous about appearing on a panel with such a well-known author, but Barbara is a lovely lady and quite comfortable to chat with. I appreciate her doing this interview. I think you'll enjoy getting to know her as well.

LC: I just finished reading HARD BARGAIN and I'm amazed at the amount of realism about police procedure you manage to slip into your book without overwhelming the reader or "dumping information." How DO you research your work?

BD'A: I do a lot of my research now on the net. But at the time of HARD BARGAIN that wasn't possible. Also, to get the feel of police work, you have to get out on the street with police officers. My friend, the wonderful writer Hugh Holton, was Commander of Personnel for the Chicago Police Department when I first met him, and later District Commander in the Third District. I rode around with him, and then did ride-alongs with patrol cops and Tac teams. You need to hang out with cops.

LC: Oh yeah! There is nothing like zipping down a major city street in the middle of the night at way over the normal speed limit. Ride-alongs are great fun. What led you to create the character of Cat Marsala?

BD'A: I had been working on the Donna Branion murder, both to try to free her husband, who had been wrongly convicted of her murder, and to write a book about the case, studying the autopsy report and crime scene photos and interviewing police officers and judges and so on. After a while, I realized that what I was doing was very much like the work of an investigative reporter. Cat grew from that.

LC: You wrote a true crime book about the case (which I'm dying to read, by the way) titled, THE DOCTOR, THE MURDER, THE MYSTERY: THE TRUE STORY OF THE DR. JOHN BRANION MURDER CASE. Given all the murder cases in the city of Chicago alone, what drew you to write about this particular case?

BD'A: Dr. John Branion was in prison in Illinois when his second wife, who he had married during the long period of review by the courts, came to see my husband. Tony is a professor at Northwestern Law School. He had just got a man out of a Mexico prison. Shirley Branion had seen a story on that in a newspaper. But that was international law, his field. And in any case, for any sort of Post-conviction or habeas corpus hearing, we needed new evidence. So I started to research the case. Slippery slope. I became more and more interested and more and more outraged that Branion was in prison.

LC: You write stand-alones and two series, how do you keep them all separate? Focus on one at a time, or just let fly?

BD'A: I always focus on one book at a time. I don't know how people can keep two in their heads, but it's wonderful that they can.

LC: I agree! What is your typical writing day like, assuming you ever have one?

BD'A: I used to insist to myself that I produce four pages a day. As I get older, I'm beating up on myself less if I don't make that goal.

LC: Hmmm, perhaps I should stop whacking myself over the head with my mouse? You've won several notable awards for your writing. Does that make it easier for you to write the next book, or raise the bar so high you have to grab a step ladder to reach it?

BD'A: Well, the awards don't, but thanks for mentioning them. What makes it hard is that I always want to do something different, so I'm always struggling with the new project.

LC: Happy to hear I'm not alone in that. Would you tell us a bit about your background? I'm particularly interested in the bit about tiger handling. And is writing mysteries easier or harder?

BD'A: Writing mysteries is WAY harder than tiger handling. I got into handling tigers when my husband and I had a musical comedy playing in Chicago. He was the composer and I wrote the book. It involved magic and was David Copperfield's first starring role. You know the illusion in which the beautiful young lady is changed into a tiger? Well, nobody wanted to handle the tiger except his trainer and it required two people to get him out of his travel cage, into the illusion cage and out of it. So I was drafted. I did this for quite some time, occasionally with a panther. But I have to emphasize that I was just a handler. A trainer is much more important and more skilled.

LC: What writers do you like to read and why?

BD'A: I love to read mysteries, and I read three or four a week. But I don't want to mention authors, because if I mention ten, there would be a hundred more I admire and I would feel guilty about leaving out.

LC: Wow, you ARE a fast reader! Does living in Chicago, amongst so many other authors, affect your writing in any way? Meaning knowing there is so much competition, and so many others writing about the same city?

BD'A: It's wonderful having other writers here to talk with. I remember the days when almost no crime fiction was set in Chicago. The publishing industry thought readers were only interested in New York and L.A. This is excellent.

LC: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your novels?

BD'A: My website is at I also do a Chicago-flavored blog with six other Chicago writers, called: The others are Libby Hellmann, Marcus Sakey, Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover, Michael Allen Dymmoch, and Kevin Guilfoile.

Quite an interesting group! Thanks for stopping by to chat, Barbara! My bookmark is about to slip into your book AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Can't wait to read it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Alone and Together with the Creative Process

Elizabeth Zelvin

I write alone. When I’m at the computer, I enter a world in which any interruption is an intrusion. If I have a door to close, I’ll close it. When I had a day job in which I had to write and also interact with clients and staff, this became a problem. The appropriate message to send these people was: “My door is always open.” But if my door was open, I couldn’t concentrate. Short term solution: I closed the door after sticking up a sign that said: “My door is figuratively open.” Long term solution: I quit the day job.

The logistics of writing are a little more complicated for me these days. I have two wonderful work spaces, but no doors. In my apartment in the city, there’s what could be called a computer corner in the living room. Tucked away behind the desktop, I’m practically invisible. It’s usually okay when my husband passes through. Occasionally he forgets and tries to start a conversation while I’m deep in my manuscript. But he’s very good about going away if I hold up a “Stop!” palm like a traffic cop. And his day job gives me plenty of alone time five days a week.

In the country, a little house on the East End of Long Island, my computer is also set up in the living room. But rather than looking into the room, I look over the top of my laptop monitor into the garden. The view includes constant activity at the bird feeders, my wonderful flowers—more glorious than ever since I got a deer fence for my last birthday—and wildlife that includes rabbits (loved or hated depending on what they’re nibbling on) and some very smart squirrels (though not smart enough to beat the baffles on the bird feeders). Once in a while I even get a fox, a possum, an owl, or a hawk. The key to solitude here is that my husband is a city boy who hates the country. (I had great fun giving this trait to one of my characters in a future book.) He’s relieved when I say, “It’s okay if you don’t come out this weekend. I’m writing.”

At a friend’s book launch recently, I heard the best answer yet to why—or how the hell—some writers write at Starbucks. She said, “At home, the phone rings, people try to talk to me, the mail comes—there are always distractions. At Starbucks, no one bothers me. I’m surrounded by all that wonderful energy, yet I can plunge into my own little world.” I guess the world is divided into two kinds of writers, those who talk about wonderful energy and those who say, “Leave me alone!” (This particular friend comes from Kansas and writes upbeat spiritual self-help books. I come from Queens and write murders. Hmmm.)

The middle ground between solitary writing and writing in a crowd is collaboration. I’ve heard quite a few mystery writing teams talk about writing together—PJ Parrish, Maan Meyers, Charles Todd, Evelyn David—and I’m always impressed. The chemistry of successful collaboration is a gift and a mystery, a lot like falling in love. On the other hand, I have seen that chemistry created in lab conditions, not as a fiction writer or poet (does anybody ever collaborate on a poem?), but as a songwriter. I’ve attended several workshops with legendary singer/songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who believes that the collaborative process both stimulates and mimics the internal creative process. As he memorably put it once, the voices that say, “Wow, that’s brilliant!” and “No, that’s stupid!” can come from the group or the inside of your head. In his workshops, he proves it by throwing together groups of four or five total strangers on Monday and asking them to write a song that’s ready to perform by Thursday. Talk about a creative challenge! But it works, though not without some acrimony and occasional tears. After going through that process five times, I appreciate the inside of my head.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cornelia Read: From Stringbean to Maddy Dare

Interviewed by
Sandra Parshall

Cornelia Read is a refugee from the Social Register who was raised by hippies on the California coast. Her first novel, A Field of Darkness, was published in 2006 to rave reviews and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second book, The Crazy School, will be out in January 2008. She lives in California with her husband and two daughters.

Loved the photo of you in a tux at the Edgars banquet. How much work was involved in getting into it?

You can’t tell in the photo, but it’s actually tails. I got the shirt, vest, tie, and collar from Brooks Brothers. The shirtbox was printed with an eight-step set of directions for getting all of it on, which took half an hour with my sister Freya’s and friend Heidi’s assistance.

I have gained a new and profound empathy for the plight of Victorian men.

What was it like to be at the Edgar Awards as a nominee? Stressful, dream come true, or less exciting than you expected?

I cannot remember ever having more fun during the course of a single twenty-four-hour period. I mean, getting to hang out in a banquet hall jammed to the rafters with my favorite people… the only thing at all comparable would be joining up with a bunch of scathingly well-read and articulate pirates to commandeer a super-tanker of Dom Perignon off the coast of Monte Carlo.


Now that you’ve accumulated all the rave reviews, plus an Edgar nomination, you can relax in the knowledge that your first book has been a success. But did you have any doubts and fears before it was released? Did you have nightmares about it ending up on remainder tables, marked down to $2.95?

I still have those nightmares, only there’s a huge DayGlo sign on each table that says, “Three for $.99! Burns like a charm in campfires, woodstoves!”

How long were you writing before you published? Did you always want to write mysteries?

I’ve been writing since second grade—mostly dreck, but it was fun.

I was more about espionage than mystery, as a kid. Passed through a serious Harriet-the-Spy/Ian Fleming phase, following close on the heels of my Batman/Lawrence-of-Arabia period.

I wrote the diary of a child CIA agent when I was in sixth grade. The title was “Call Me Stringbean.”

Like most writers, you probably spent a long time perfecting your first book before you sold it. Do you remember how many drafts you did of A Field of Darkness?

I started writing it the week before 9/11, 2001 and my agent was finally happy with the final version just before New Year’s, 2005. I did two more rewrites with my first editor, Kristen Weber.

I don’t know exactly how many drafts that was, all told, but I still have every page of them piled up in the top shelf of my desk—each incarnation of the thing, in chronological order—and the stack’s over two feet tall. Weyerhauser loves me.

Was the second book more challenging, or less, than the first?

Writing The Crazy School was terrifying. Partly because I didn’t want to disappoint the people who were so kind about Field, and partly because I am a total wuss whose self-confidence is a delicate little flower—pale and wan, trembling in the slightest zephyr.

Did you always intend to write a series, or did you want to write stand-alones?

I hoped a publisher would like A Field of Darkness well enough to entertain the idea of a series featuring Madeline Dare. She seemed like a chick it would be fun for me to embark on continuing adventures with, but I didn’t know if anyone else would agree.

I’ve just started the third novel in the series, but am hoping to try my hand at a World War II thriller for number four. I am completely, obsessively smitten with the idea I have for that book—very much hope my agent and editor think it’s worth doing.

Does your editor require that you submit an outline or proposal for a book before you start writing?

They didn’t for the first two. I described the third one over the phone and my new editor, Les Pockell, liked the idea. Madeline travels to Kashmir around 1990, and the first line is, “ ‘I hate India,’ said my mother. ‘It’s just so Sixties.’ ”

For the fourth they’ve requested a written pitch.

You’re a wife and the mother of two daughters. Has it been hard to balance home life, book promotion and travel, and writing?

Very, very, very hard… on everyone. I never feel as though I’m doing any of it well enough: parenting, writing, promotion, marriage. I live with a constant undercurrent of guilt and unfolded laundry.

I’ve started daydreaming about kibbutzes—also polygamy.

Do you still have the same critique partners you had before you sold your first book?

Yes, and they’re amazing. I am lucky lucky lucky lucky to have found my writing group. May blessings rain upon them for all eternity. [Cornelia, second from left in the above photo, is shown with her critique partners, Daisy James, Sharon Johnson, and Karen Murphy.]

What’s the best thing about being a published writer? What’s the worst?

The best thing is the people I’ve had the great good fortune to meet as a result. See above: Pirates. Dom Perignon.

The worst is when things don’t go the way I want for fellow writers. This is a subjective, no-backs-no-gives, despite-our-best-intentions-and-purity-of-essence crapshoot of a business, for all concerned.

I want the good guys to win, damn it.

What aspects of your writing have you worked hardest to improve? Who are some of the writers you’ve learned from, and what have you learned from them?

I have the hardest time with tangents. I get carried away, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the… um… yeah.

Suffice it to say that my revisions require stout boots and a sharp machete.

Listing the fiction writers who’ve taught me by example would crash your server. Every book you read can teach you about writing—both what works and what doesn’t.

The last three books I’ve read are examples of what works superbly well: Ken Bruen’s Priest, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Alan Furst’s Dark Star.

Books specifically on writing that I’ve learned crucial stuff from include:

You Can Write a Mystery
Gillian Roberts

Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel: How To Knock 'Em Dead With Style
Hallie Ephron

If You Want to Write
Brenda Ueland

On Writing
Stephen King

Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott

The Art of the Novel
Milan Kundera

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
John Gardner

Self-editing for Fiction Writers
Renni Brown and Dave King

A friend of mine says it’s bad enough that The Sopranos is coming to an end and The Wire’s new season doesn’t start till September -- why does she also have to wait so long for your next book? Can you give her a little taste of the story to help her survive?

Can I say I am in love L-U-V with your friend? Because I so am.

Here is a brief rundown of The Crazy School: Madeline has fled Syracuse, New York, for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. She’s teaching at a boarding school for disturbed kids, but soon discovers that the only true psychos on campus are the grownups in charge. The book also features a helicopter, Sixties nostalgia, Eighties ennui, contraband caffeine and nicotine, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and a missing batch of C-4 explosive.

Visit Cornelia’s website at

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The First Ah-Ha Moment

Sharon Wildwind

The classic question: Where do you get your ideas?

The classic answer: Ideas aren’t a problem. I already have more than I can use in a lifetime.

The second classic question: How do you write an entire book?

The second classic answer: The same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time.

All joking aside, there are as many ways to start a book as there are writers. What I’m talking about today is that absolute first minute, the completely blank page, the very first time the idea, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write a book about X?” comes to me.

Since I’m a character person, I always have spare characters running lose in my head. This first-idea moment is like a curtain call for actors. Which of this rag-tag bunch that show up this morning will get the starring role in this book? I insist they come with resumes. I’m not much interested in their height, hair color, etc, though I do have to be careful about having too many black-haired, green-eyes characters—a combination I find incredibly sexy.

What I’m much more interested in is preexisting buttons I can push, internal conflicts, etc. I look for characters who have
• Turning points in their lives, places where the character learned something good or bad about life and about human nature?
• Secrets: It might be a big or a little secret, distant past or recent. Whatever it is, it's a secret with consequences and those consequences will change a person forever.
• Hopes, dreams, fears: what keeps him alive? What would be the worst blow, the worst loss he could suffer? What would be the greatest triumph, the greatest blessing he could gain?

On a big piece of paper, I write five or six character names, leaving a lot of white space between each one. If you’re familiar with Gabriele Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way, you’ll recognize what comes next as what he calls “clustering.” I draw lines between the characters to show relationships. At this stage, vague phrases are fine. “Steve has a secret that has something to do with a scandal that happened in town 50 years ago.” or “Frederick is spying on the doctor. Why?” I’m looking for ways to eliminate orphan characters and increase the web between other characters, especially where the connections relate to the mystery.

An orphan character is a character who is in the book for one reason only. Old Dr. Blakeley knows that Mrs. Coleman couldn’t be Tom’s mother because he performed a hysterectomy on her decades ago. There’s no mention of Dr. Blakeley anywhere else in the book, but, toward the end, the protagonists have car problems near his farm. While they are waiting for the tow truck, the old man reminiscences and the protagonists suddenly discover this vital clue that solves the mystery. Dr. Blakeley is an orphan character: either get rid of him and give his secret to another character, or build up Dr. Blakeley’s role.

I want all of my characters—either knowingly or unknowingly—related to one another; they went to school together, served in the military at the same time, or worked together; one character dated/married another character’s relative; one character sold the other character the murder weapon; two characters corresponded on a chat room about antique vases and forged antique vases happens to be the motive for murder; and so on.

By this time, I’m usually able to pick which character might make the best villain, AKA the killer, but I like to have at least two possible killers in reserve because they provide good red herrings. I ask each potential villain to tell me why it seemed right to them that the first murder victim had to die. I tend to stay away from the “It was an accident. He hit his head on the corner of the marble mantle and, when I realized he was dead, I panicked.” That character isn’t guilty of murder, but rather of covering up a murder, which makes for a lot less juicy story.

I’m after the person to whom murder makes sense, a person who has what Liz Lounsbury calls the “faulty life view.” If I can get that person to tell me a believable story, can make me think, even for an instant, that yes, murder was a reasonable solution to the problem, I've had my first ah-ha moment. I know I've got an idea for a book that's worth looking into.
Writing quote for the week:
Plot from the murderer’s point of view and write from the detective’s point of view.~Earl Stanley Gardnier, mystery writer

Monday, June 25, 2007

Two Deadly Daughters Meet at a Deadly Mystery Conference

by Julia Buckley
 This is the second time I was able to meet up with Lonnie Cruse, my fellow Deadly Daughter, at a mystery conference. This time it was at Authorfest at the Schaumburg Library this past Saturday. Thank goodness for mystery conferences, I say! How else would we authors keep in touch?

Lonnie is a fun and interesting person, and we got to be on a panel together, attend sessions together, and talk in general about the odd business of publishing. Here's our panel audience.

I am happy to say that I did NOT spill water on her this time, as I did at Love is Murder last year, and I think Lonnie was grateful for that favor.

Here's a picture of Lonnie posing with Mary Welk, who was also on our panel. What a lovely couple of ladies. Who would ever guess that they write about gruesome murders? Which reminds me--we got to hear a presentation by Luisa Buehler and Kelle Z. Riley about what sorts of deadly poisons we can find in our garden and how we can use our knowledge of chemicals to make a death look accidental. Very informative, if a bit frightening. Who knew that many things were poisonous?

All in all it was an interesting day. Lonnie sold far more books than I did, so she is the queen. :)
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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Distribution Discombobulation

Tony Burton (Guest Blogger)

“Oh, if only I could just publish this novel! Everybody who has read it tells me how great it is—Aunt Mildred, my Sunday School teacher, Gramma Betty! I’m sure it’ll be a best seller, and I’ll be able to buy that new car I want!”

Hmmm. Well, let’s say that your Auntie, Gramma and Miss Jolene are all correct, and your novel is the best thing since sliced whole-wheat raisin bread. And let’s take this lovely fantasy one large step further and say that the acquisitions editor at Big Press, Inc. loves it, too! They’re going to publish A Far Cry from Cleveland! Woo-hoo!

Now… let’s talk about getting the book out there in the hands of John and Jane Reader.

Most authors, and let’s not even think about readers, really don’t know about distribution. Oh, they know it has to be done… just like somebody, somewhere has to put all those naked chickens inside plastic wrap so people can buy them at the grocery store and fry ‘em up at home. But how is it accomplished? And why is it done just that way?

Let’s look at the problem. First of all, most authors want their books to be on the shelf of every bookstore. Hey, it only makes sense! The more people see your book, the more chances you have of selling a book, right? But you have to remember: about 200,000 new titles hit the American marketplace EVERY YEAR. That’s a lot of competition for space on the shelves of the bookstores.

The two largest distributors in North America are Ingram and Baker & Taylor. I think most authors know that—in the same way they know we have a bicameral legislature in the United States. Exactly how they work, however, is often a mystery in both cases.

Actually, let me clarify that: many people consider Ingram and Baker & Taylor to be wholesalers rather than distributors. It’s true that Ingram, for example, does deal with other organizations which it defines as “distributors.” It’s a fine line, and one which I’m not going to debate right here. Either way, they are the primary wholesale source for booksellers in North America. I say this because, when I contact a bookseller, they don’t ask me if the book is available through Atlas or IPG—they ask me about Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

Most of the companies who classify themselves as “distributors” have similar setups to those of Ingram and Baker & Taylor, but many require exclusivity of distribution, and a higher discount. Biblio Distribution, for example, requires a minimum 60% discount plus exclusivity. So, the publisher gets 40% of the retail price, and from that has to pay for production, marketing, storage, shipping, royalties… oh, and hopefully the utility bills for his business.

Ingram is a huge company. They are the 1000-pound gorilla in the wholesale book market in North America. And they also own what is probably the biggest Print-On-Demand company in the world: Lightning Source. (By the way, did you know that Barnes & Noble bought Ingram in late 1998? No wonder that they want books to be distributed through Ingram, to be stocked on their shelves!)

Ingram sells books to anyone who resells them. Baker & Taylor, while also having a wide market, focuses more on the institutional arena. They sell a great many books to libraries, schools, colleges, etc. as well as to book resellers.

Because Ingram and Baker & Taylor are the two biggest players in the wholesaling and distribution game, they can make the publisher jump through quite a few financial and procedural hoops to get their books distributed. Let’s talk about those hoops: if you want your book to be carried by these companies, your publisher must have an agreement in place with them. For example, with Ingram this means the publisher must agree to do the following:
· Pay a non-refundable set-up fee for the privilege ($750)
· Give a minimum 55% discount off retail
· Pay the shipping charges to and from booksellers who order or return
· Pay a per-book fee to have each book considered for distribution by the semiannual selection committee
· Pay another fee for the “New Vendor Title Visibility Program” (over $500)
· Accept all returns [*see below]
· Sell a minimum of $20,000 net after returns over two years [**see below]

(NOTE: this information came from the PMA website.)

* “Accept all returns”—this is a sore spot with most publishers, and most booksellers. Whenever a book is returned, for whatever reason, it affects the bottom line for publisher and author. The book may or may NOT be in a resalable condition, because there are no guarantees to that effect. A couple of small presses were actually driven out of business by big-box retailers deciding to return thousands of copies of books which they over-ordered and didn’t sell. By the way, the publisher has to pay for the returned books and shipping even if the books are not resalable, because it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

** “Sell a minimum of…”—if the publisher’s books do not sell at this level, the publisher’s status will be reviewed, and they may be offered the chance to stay with Ingram if they offer a larger discount on books to resellers. And “net after returns” means $20,000 after they have subtracted the cost of all the returned books from the figures.

For all this aggravation, what does Ingram provide, besides carrying the book?
· They will pay within 90 days of the month of sale (i.e., books sell on May 10, publisher gets royalty check or deposit on September 1).
· They will assign a specific buyer and an advertising salesperson to that publisher’s account.
· They will list your book(s) in their catalogs, both print and online, so they can be purchased by booksellers.

Baker & Taylor have a similar program, with similar conditions and guarantees. Their set-up fee is a little lower, I believe, and they do not require the publisher to pay outbound freight for books ordered by booksellers. Look here for specifics of what they require from publishers who wish to be vendors/suppliers.

“But,” you may ask, “why don’t the booksellers just order from the publishers?” Good question! Here is what booksellers told me when I asked:
· “I can write a single check each month instead of writing fifteen or thirty to different publishers.”
· “Ingram/Baker & Taylor will give me minimum 90 day terms.”
· “Ingram gives me better discounts when I order more books from them.”
· “It’s cheaper to pay for two big boxes of books to be shipped from Baker & Taylor than to pay for 10 smaller boxes to be shipped from a lot of different publishers.”
· “I know if a publisher has Ingram (or Baker & Taylor) distribution, they must have some financial stability.”
· “Having the book available through Ingram gives me some assurance of the quality of the book and the writing.”

Each of those points makes me nod my head and say, “Um-hmm,” except for the last one because, hey, I’ve read some real stinkers distributed by Ingram.

There are other independent distributors, of course, but none of them have the reach and cachet of Ingram or Baker & Taylor.

Something I’ve noticed: many authors seem to be real numbers junkies. They find out about the toll-free number to check sales at Ingram, and go bananas. (It’s 800-937-8000, option #4, extension 36803 if you want to get your part of the fruit salad.) There you can learn about stocking numbers and “sales” for any book, if you have the ISBN. Problem is, the sales numbers mean very little. They are the wholesale sales, those going out to resellers. So, since the reseller may or may not sell the books and may ultimately return them, they are not realistic indicators of how much money you, as the author, are making.

Wolfmont Publishing and my second imprint, Honey Locust Press, are small presses. I have one full-time employee: me. I do cover design, bookmark design, page layout, book teaser video creation, etc. It’s all me. I’ve had some success getting books shelved in stores, but not as much as I’d like. For the most part, it really requires personal contact by authors, not by the publisher.

Also, because I/we are a small press and operate close to the bone, I don’t offer as large a discount as some of the larger houses do (my discounts range between 35% and 45%). I can’t do it and still pay decent royalties to authors. I don’t accept across-the-board returns, either. I can’t take the risk. However, I will negotiate returns with independent bookstores if they order directly from me.

Yes, these things limit my market. I know that. But I’ve only had one author complain about the discount issue with me. And I do offer this option: if the author will sign an agreement to be completely financially responsible for all returns of their book, I’ll accept returns. Strangely enough, even though some authors want me to accept returns, none of them want to shoulder that burden.

Even with these limitations, I have books shelved in a Barnes and Noble in Texas, simply because one of the authors (it is an anthology) went there and had a very successful signing where they sold all the copies they had ordered within the first hour. They now stock the book.

I have books shelved in some Hastings stores, but again it’s only because the author of that novel went to those stores and made personal contact with the store managers. I have books shelved at some independents because, as the author or the editor of the books, I made contact with the owners and established rapport. Personal contact made the difference in each case, whether chain bookstores or independent.

While all these details may make your head spin, it’s good for authors to have at least some idea of how it all works. One, it allows you a better understanding of why publishers may do some of the crazy things they do. (Such as hold your royalties for months, or pay royalties that you consider miniscule.) Two, it helps you to understand better how to market your book. And like it or not, authors have to market their own books, one way or another.

In my earlier days, before I knew the value of having national distribution, I walked into some bookstores and asked them about stocking my books. The first question they asked me was, “Are they carried by Ingram?” or “Can I get them through Baker & Taylor?” At that time, I had to tell them no. And they said they wouldn’t carry the books, even if I did the fulfillment myself and I was local.

I’m not saying every bookseller is that way, but quite a few are. That being said, some independent booksellers are getting accustomed to the idea of going through distributors other than the two major players. But in my experience most want some sort of distributor or national wholesaler rather than going directly to the publisher, even if the publisher offers favorable terms.

I know that’s a lot of information. And even with that, it doesn’t cover everything about distribution. But it’s a good start, and maybe can help you as an author to recognize some of the hurdles faced by your publisher when she is trying to get A Far Cry from Cleveland onto bookstore shelves.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cell phoneitus...

By Lonnie Cruse

Picture on left is the side of the Super Museum with a fake telephone booth. And yes, that's me posing as a super hero. Anything for the camera.

It's a wonder to me that everyone, including me, doesn't have missing, or at the very least, mangled ears from constantly holding a cell phone against the sides of our heads. I even know people who have the kind that actually hook ONTO the ear, like a hearing aide, so they walk around looking like they have a huge black roach attached to their ears. Ewww.

Practically ever single person shopping in the huge discount stores or grocery stores are chatting to someone. It's like we can't go for five minutes without conversation. Anywhere. I felt really sorry for an older lady I spotted in a restaurant a while back, eating her dinner in silence because her younger male companion chatted on the phone from the time they arrived, throughout the meal, and was still at it as we left. I'm assuming he was her son, but it struck me as a bit rude. Couldn't he chat with HER through the meal and call the person back when he was alone? Sigh.

Of course, I'm a child of the 50's and our home phone back then was firmly attached to the wall in the dining room which was right behind and fully open to the living room. So my parents could hear every single word. And that did get me into trouble, more than once. When hubby and I got our first house, in the 60's, our phone was in the kitchen, with possibly the longest cord in history, which allowed me to work in the kitchen and even reach part of the living room to sit down and chat. Of course, our sons always got *just out of reach* of the cord, so while I could threaten, I couldn't actually touch them while they wrestled each other or bounced on the couch. Luckily, it was vinyl. Where was I?

Growing up, I never dreamed of cordless phones, much less cell phones which gave users the ability to talk in the grocery store OR the car, while on a trip. I do love that. I confess, though, I once put the cordless phone down and couldn't find it. Pressed the handy little locater button, but no sound to lead me to it. Then I looked out the window. I'd left the receiver on top of the dog's house when I fed her. She didn't bother to answer the phone. Probably knew the call wasn't for her.

Last Tuesday was sort of the "be all, end all" cell phone spotting for me. We took our grandsons to the waterfall at Ferne Clyffe State Park (Southern Illinois, if you are ever in our area, check it out.) The boys climbed around, over, and under the rocks while Grandpa supervised from a safe distance and I sat on a nearby bench and enjoyed a good book and the lovely scenery. From time to time other visitors sauntered up to where we were, admiring the scenery. One group of teens included a young man chatting on his cell phone, informing the listener that he was at the waterfall. Which tells me there is now no place that is cell phone free except certain hospital areas, and people have been known to sneak them in there. And where was my cell phone while we admired the flora and fauna at Ferne Clyffe, you ask? In my pocket, of course! You didn't think I was dumb enough to take a hike in the woods without it, did you?

But I do have to wonder what kind of society we've evolved into, when you rarely see anyone without a cell phone tucked into the ear and/or between ear and shoulder while people go about their daily business. And whether or not the next generation will still have two ears and/or be able to stand fully upright, with ear not attached to shoulder permenantly. Should be interesting to see. And cell phones have given multitudinous writers ideas for stories. I'm sure there are plenty more out there.

'Scuse me, my cell phone is ringing. That would be the new one the company just sent me that takes pictures and has some sort of direction finder, for when I get lost. Have a good day. And don't forget to charge your cell phone.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Doing Research

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve never been fond of doing research. I majored in English back in college because it meant I got to read novels. Decades later, when I went back to school for a master’s in social work, I always felt slightly over my head in the university library. The Internet made things easier. When I don’t know something, I google it. But the systematic hunt for facts still scares me. I’d much rather make it up.

As a mystery writer, I’ve learned that there are things I’m allowed to make up and things I’m not. It seems unfair that writers for television are apparently allowed to get everything wrong, while novelists get scolded via email by their readers for the smallest error in fact. But who said life was fair? I can—in fact, I must—make up my characters and the situations I put them in. I may make up the settings of my stories, if I choose. But forensics, police procedure, and any kind of technical detail had better be accurate.

I didn’t know this when I wrote the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober. But when I started sending the manuscript out and networking with other mystery writers and readers, I soon learned that I couldn’t afford to ignore this stuff. To some extent, I could bypass it. I chose as my setting a milieu I know well: the world of alcoholism treatment programs and recovery from addictions and codependency. As a professional, I had published in the field. I didn’t need to look much up, and writing quirky characters and snappy dialogue instead of clinical prose was fun. I also chose to make my protagonist an amateur sleuth. My recovering alcoholic and his two sidekicks get suspicious about a death that’s fallen through the cracks in the system and make their own investigation. The convention of the traditional whodunit—mine is too gritty to be called a cozy—allowed me to do this. If I’d tried to write a police procedural, a PI novel, or a technothriller, I’d have had to research it. So I didn’t.

The police crept into the next two manuscripts, Death Will Improve Your Relationship and Death Will Help You Leave Him, which will appear in due course provided the first book does well. I contrived to keep them more or less in the background. But now I’m working on the fourth, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, and the moment of truth has arrived. My amateur detectives take shares in a group house in the Hamptons and find a body on the beach. The problem is not so much a case of Cabot Cove Syndrome (How can Jessica Fletcher manage to find so many bodies in one small town?) as that there’s no way the group can go on with its summer without police involvement. One of their housemates is dead. Sure, my protagonist and his buddies can snoop. But trying to get the story going, I quickly found myself stuck. I needed to know what the police were doing. Hence: research.

So one morning I waltzed into the headquarters of the Town of East Hampton Police Department, introduced myself as a mystery writer, and said the magic words (courtesy of writer Robin Hathaway), “I want to get it right.” As she’d predicted, they were glad to help. In minutes, I was seated across the desk from a handsome young sergeant with a gold shield pinned to his blue uniform.

“How do I know you are who you say you are?” he asked.

“Here’s my card,” I said. “And my bookmark.” (Better than a passport, with my picture and bio on one side and my book title and blurb on the other.) I showed him the Malice Domestic pad I’d brought along to take notes. I also mentioned my former affiliation with POPPA as a clinician doing outreach to NYPD officers on the subject of post-traumatic stress.

“It’s set in an imaginary Hampton,” I began.

He grinned and gestured at the room around him.

“This is it,” he said. I can imagine that policing in the Hamptons must be stranger than fiction some of the time.

I proceeded to describe my scenario and ask what the police would be doing at every point along the way, especially where they would necessarily be interacting with my characters. The sergeant generously gave me an hour of his time. He not only answered all my questions, but told me a few facts I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For one thing, group houses are illegal anywhere in the Town of East Hampton (from Wainscott to Sag Harbor to Montauk). Oops. Luckily, it’ll be the landlord, not the renters, who get in trouble when the murder bring the house to the law’s attention. Best of all, in explaining why the police and the medical examiner must be called to the scene of any death, the sergeant uttered one line so good that I absolutely must use it in the book.

“It’s against the law to die in the State of New York.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

All the Same in the End

Sandra Parshall

“The first chapter sells the book. And the last chapter sells the next book.” --Mickey Spillane

The End.

No other part of the crime novels I read disappoints me as often as the ending. No other part of the books I write makes me crazy the way the ending does. You can have a great plot, wonderful characters, atmospheric setting, graceful writing, but if the ending is lame or over-the-top or seems grafted on from some other subgenre, that’s what readers will remember. If they hate the ending of your current book, they might not bother reading the next.

Does any other genre place such a heavy burden on the poor writers who are just trying to find a good way to wrap it all up? Both critics and readers complain about “formulaic” crime fiction, but at the end, the formula is what they want. They want a confrontation between villain and protagonist. The motive behind the crime must be explained, which often leads to ludicrous scenes in which a killer blathers on and on about his actions, while holding the protagonist’s life in his hands. Once the full confession is out, the hero or heroine calls on inner reserves of strength and ingenuity, good triumphs over evil, and the world is set right again. Never mind that this sort of thing almost never happens in real life. In crime fiction, it’s expected, and if the writer doesn’t deliver it, the majority of readers will feel cheated.

And it all has to be suspenseful, exciting, scary, even though the reader knows how it will turn out.

In trying to lend originality to the formulaic ending, some writers have gone in for ever-bigger and more spectacular concluding action. Reading these over-the-top endings, I’m never sure whether the writers were desperately reaching for something new to excite fans or simply trying to keep themselves from falling asleep out of sheer boredom with the formula.

When I was struggling recently with the ending of my own work in progress, I asked some writing friends, published and unpublished, what they want to read -- and write -- at the end of a crime novel. Most of them have the same complaint I do about weak or preposterous climaxes.

Sheila Connolly, aka Sarah Atwell, who has two mysteries coming out from Berkley Prime Crime next year, said, “I know more than one book that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly -- up until the end, when it read as though the writer had simply run out steam and wanted nothing more than to finish the bleeping story. I’ve also read too many where the killer came out of left field at the end. Readers want closure, but we also want it to be believable, not contrived.”

The ending must answer what Lori Lake, author of Snow Moon Rising, calls “The Big Question” -- the central conflict that drives the entire story. “Your opening promises something, and in order for your ending to work, you must fulfill that promise.”

Darlene Ryan, author of Saving Grace and Rules for Life, admits to enjoying climactic scenes where the protagonist is in physical danger -- although “I know it can get preposterous in long-running series.”

K.B. Inglee, on the other hand, doesn’t require that the protagonist be endangered, and if he or she is, “I have a tendency to skip over that part.” Still, she adds, “the wisdom is...gotta have a threat, even do damage to your protag.”

Nobody wants to return to the style of mystery writing that has the sleuth explaining everything in great detail at the end. “I hate endings where the detective explains what happened," says Leslie Budewitz of "I want to figure it out with the protagonist.”

What about epilogues that take the characters beyond the climax? “I usually stop reading once the murderer is uncovered,” K.B. says. But others want more. “After the killer is caught,” Leslie says, “I like a short chapter -- two to three pages -- that gives a bit of wrapup that shows me how the protagonist and the victims or other characters are doing in the next few hours or days.” Sheila has “mixed feelings” about epilogues but believes they can be “intellectually satisfying.” Janet Koch, however, loves them. “I typically enjoy epilogues tremendously, especially when I’ve grown to love the book. Feels like a little treat at the end, or maybe an extended goodbye.”

Not everyone in my mini-survey demanded that the villain be brought to justice. “Sometimes,” Jaye Stock said, “the villain can carry over to another book. Even if the villain is carried over, there [must] be a sense of completion and closure to the story -- a stopping place for the current work.”

Everyone agreed on these points:

The ending must be logical, flowing from the events of the story. It can’t depend on a previously unknown fact or character.

The ending must be appropriate in tone to the story as a whole. The writer can’t turn a cozy into a thriller in the final pages and expect readers to be happy.

The plot and the ending must be plausible. “It ruins the story for me,” Bobbie Gosnell said, “if my final thought on the book is, Give me a break.”

Oh, and one more thing: Modern crime novel protagonists, in contrast to Miss Marple, Poirot, and Holmes, must show “growth and change” by the end of every book. But that’s another topic.

What do you want in an ending? Do you care whether the protagonist is endangered? Do you mind if the villain gets away? How far can a writer go without making you throw the book against the wall in disgust?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Character Capsule

Sharon Wildwind

Ah, summer. Wearing shorts, sitting under a striped umbrella or the patio of my favorite restaurant, eating nachos and sipping something cold, my writer friends and I knew we could solve all the writing problems in the world. Then the topic of character development came up.

Some of the group, like me, were plotters. A couple of the others were pansters. And one poor person was a wide-eyed newbie who was in the process of discovering that even writers who had been in the business for a while, don’t have any magic beans, which when planted, will grow the perfect story.

If you’re not familiar with plotters versus pansters, a plotter is someone who does a lot of thinking and planning before even writing Chapter 1. A panster writes by the seat of her pants. She sits down with no more than, I want to write a story about a missing eight-year old girl, and she’s off and running.

After a good bit of wandering discussion about characters we had known and loved, we challenged each other to come up with a character capsule kit, a short list that would be doable by both plotters and pansters. Each person submitted one essential thing they had learned about character development from another writer.

So here it is: the fueled-by-nachos-on-Earl’s-patio-instant-character-development capsule. The name of the writer who gave us the idea is in parenthesis.

Dominant impression: two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but may indicate a role similar to that profession. Or it might relate to something totally separate from what the person does for a living. Example: a cop might be a disillusioned protector. (Debra Dixon)

Tag line: One sentence that describes the character’s main motivation Example: the tag line for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz is There’s no place like home.(Debra Dixon)

Flawed life view: How has the character got it wrong about life and/or relationships? Example: he thinks he’s allowed to give to other people, but not take for himself. (Liz Lounsbury)

Line he/she believes they will not cross: What is the one thing the character is convinced he/she will never do? What happens in this book when they cross that line? Example: She’ll never tell who really financed her college education and why. When she does tell, the police reopen a cold case, and her mother is suspected of murder. (Donald Maass)

What jobs does this character have? In other words, why is she/he in this book? All characters should ideally have at least 3 or more jobs. If you have a character with less than three jobs, think about giving those jobs to other characters. Example: 1) Second murder victim, 2) He saw Carla on River Road last Friday night, 3) He’s the one who has been cooking the books at the dot-com company. (Carolyn Wheat)

Writing quote for the week:

Good secondary characters raise the bar for the protagonists. They force the protagonists to become stronger in order to prevent the secondary characters from taking over the book.”
~From the panel “Writing Two Characters,” Bouchercon 2003

Son of the Monday Mystery Quiz

By Julia Buckley
As a continuation of last week's mystery quiz, here are some more questions to test your mystery mettle. Last week's champion: Lori Lake. (This week's answers to be posted later if people don't identify them).

1. Which English chief inspector was often accompanied in his office by an extremely intelligent (and elusive) cat named Cyril?

2. In which Sue Grafton novel did Kinsey develop a relationship with Robert Dietz, the tough bodyguard?

3. What was the pseudonym of writer and critic William Anthony Parker White?

4. What noted science fiction writer published his first detective novel at the age of sixty-five? (In 1985)

5. Who created the character of Professor Kate Fansler?

6. This award winning author of Glitz was quoted as saying of his writing, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."

7. What was the shared pseudonym of the two cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee (both born in 1905)?

8. What award-winning English mystery writer also uses the name Barbara Vine?

9. Who wrote "Rear Window?"

10. Dorothy Gilman is famous for the creation of what beloved fictional character?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Dressing The Part

KB Inglee (guest blogger)

KB is an historical interepreter at Greenbank Mill and Philips Farm in Delaware which is the setting for her children's book Farmer's Daughter, Miller's Son. You can reach KB at

Clothes make the man. OK in this case woman.

I have returned from three days in 1804 where I served as cook for the Corp of Discovery for 21 middle school kids. I spent the whole time in smoked and sweat soaked period clothing. The smell no longer washes out. Lewis and Clark probably never ate as well as we did, though I am sure they smelled worse.

I am still in the early stages of being a published writer with a kids' book and few short stories out there, I agonize over what to wear to book signings and literary parties. One of my friends mentioned her writer's outfit, so I bought a jacket with early American farm scenes on it and a long black dress to wear under it. If I need "regular clothes" I just go to my closet and there it is waiting for me. I never wear it to my own signings.

When I started writing historical fiction a friend and Civil War re-enactor said I had to wear the clothes in order to understand the world in which my work is set.

I was writing about the 1890s, but I made myself a Civil War Quaker Woman outfit out of a tan bed sheet. No hoops, no bows, no fashionable drop shoulders. With long stockings, tight ankle boots and a hat with a feather, I had a complete outfit. Oh, yeah, no corset.

I did feel different when I put it on. The three petticoats tangled around my legs as I walked and I was forever tripping over the floor length skirt. Ah, hoops keep that from happening. I wrote two short stories about Civil War re-enacting and one about a woman who took up spying to get her sons through the war safely.

While wearing my 1860s duds I wandered into a living history museum that presented 1790 to 1830 and stayed to volunteer. I needed a new suit of clothes, this time more comfortable and serviceable. Everything pinned or tied shut. My petticoat (we call it a skirt these days) came to my ankles, not the floor. Even the shoes were more comfortable. I wrote two short stories set in the early republic and three set in a living history museum. One of them was turned into a murder mystery evening as a fund raiser for the museum.

My main interest is still the 1890s, so I made what I call Emily suits, one of aqua satin and one a dark red gabardine skirt with white shirtwaist. I will wear one of these when my novel is published.

I have just made myself a Lewis and Clark period dress with the high waist and a straight skirt. It's a gray striped cotton satin. My book is set in 1816, so it is perfect to wear to my own book signings. People notice. I have yet to write the stories that go with it but I can feel the ideas bubbling up when I put it on.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Singing and Signing at Barnes and Noble

By Lonnie Cruse

Authors Walter Sorrells (left) and Parnell Hall (right) singing their writing sorrows at the Southern Festival of Books.

Author Parnell Hall wrote (and performs at the drop of the proverbial hat) a song about himself signing books at Barnes and Noble and nobody came. In one verse he mentions being seated next to a certain famous author for another signing and her line of eager readers winds clear out the front door. Any author who's ever done a book signing has experienced first hand the pain expressed in Parnell's plaintive but hilarious tune.

Sitting at a book store for a couple of hours, trying to entice passersby to stop passing by and buy a book is nothing short of exhausting. Digging ditches is by far easier. Not to mention the pay is better. And we authors have to resort to all sorts of schemes to attract attention, including but not limited to: wearing strange clothing, supplying various giveaways, free food, weird table decorations, and when all else fails, a head-on confrontation, as in leaping up from our seat to chase down a prospect with a hearty "Hello, my name is . . . and I'm here today . . . ." Trust me this job isn't for sissies. And it isn't for the shy.

Authors generally sit in solitude to write (with the possible exception of the aforementioned Parnell Hall, who claims he writes in his underwear . . .at Starbucks) so we get used to being alone with our characters. Then the book gets published and we have to go out into the big bad world and sell as many copies of it as we can in order to stay published. Picture a pan handler sitting on a sidewalk, rattling a metal tin, begging for money, and you pretty much get what the author is experiencing. And we try, really we do, not to throw ourselves at the buyer's feet and grovel in appreciation.

Are the stores grateful to have us there, hopefully bringing in business? Sometimes. And sometimes they forget we're coming. Sometimes we get a table by the front door, and sometimes we're left to guard the bathroom doors in the back of the store. Sometimes we get a line of eager buyers and sometimes we get one person wanting to know where said bathroom is, which makes it handy if we're seated near there.

So why do we do it? If it's so difficult? Because we have a story to tell and we want others to read it. Or because we're gluttons for punishment? The good news is, books are like fast food, and one burger doesn't last forever. So readers, upon consuming one book, will be looking for another, and then another. And if the reader likes the first in our series, chances are the second, and third, and so on will sell.

Of course it's hard for us, as authors, to accept that there are readers out there who won't like our particular work but will love someone elses. How dare they? But we keep writing, for those who DO love our work. And we try each time to raise the bar a bit higher, for ourselves and for our readers. All the while setting up signings at bookstores and hoping the books arrive on time. And that we've baked enough cookies.

Is there a point to this blog post? Probably not. Except I do want to mention that of all the chain stores in the world, Barnes and Noble have been the best about getting my books for signings and they never seat me by the bathrooms.

Cookies, anyone?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Saying Good Morning

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m spending the summer out on the East End of Long Island. To tell the truth, I’m in East Hampton, but we usually try to avoid the H word, which gives people the wrong idea about our income bracket and lifestyle. Even our modest neck of the woods is very beautiful. It combines the best of beach, farmland, and country and offers clear air with the kind of light that attracts artists. It’s a great place to work on a book. When I raise my eyes from the computer screen, I see the green of the garden, the brilliant purple and yellow of irises just coming into bloom, and the usual suspects—cardinal, nuthatch, woodpecker, and tufted titmouse—hanging out at the bird feeders.

Sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee every morning quiets my maternal introject for a while. That’s shrink speak for my mother’s voice in my head, which says, “It’s a gorgeous day—you should be outside.” But I also go running. No gyms or treadmills for me: I want scenery when I run. I want water. And out here, I want—and get—people to say hello to. Back in the city, when I run around the reservoir in Central Park, I get a warm greeting from the Mayor of Central Park and a nod from one or two others who see me all the time. But most runners in the city avoid eye contact and attend strictly to business. One of the joys of the country for this city girl is that out here, people actually say, "Good morning."

I usually run on Gerard Drive, a narrow peninsula located between Springs and Amagansett that’s one of the most beautiful places in the area. It’s 1.7 miles long (3.4 miles round trip), a narrow road with Accabonac Harbor on one side and Gardiners Bay on the other. Its wetlands are home to herons, egrets, ospreys, and other water birds as well as clams. (Don’t try to dig any up without a shellfish permit—the Marine Patrol takes its job seriously.) Gerard Drive is a secret known to many people. I have it mostly to myself before Memorial Day. But once the season starts, I meet an endless parade of runners, walkers, bike riders, bikers, rollerbladers, folks with kids, dogs, and bicycles built for two. And every one of them says good morning as we meet.

I’ve developed a set of greetings that cover most situations. If it’s before noon, I say, “Good morning.” If it’s after noon, I say, “Hello” or “Hi.” “Good afternoon” feels a little too formal for Gerard Drive. If they respond, I may follow it up with, “Gorgeous day, isn’t it!” Sometimes they say it first. I run so slowly that I seldom pass anybody going in the same direction. But if I do catch up to a slow walker or someone whose dog is dawdling, I say, “Believe it or not, I’m running, not walking.” That’s a good ice breaker. So is “Gerard Drive traffic jam!” when two cars, a bicycle, and a runner converge. I always get a smile, a laugh, or a greeting that sends me on my way with a big smile on my face.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Kathryn Wall: New Career in Mid-Life

Interviewer: Sandra Parshall

Kathryn Wall, author of the Bay Tanner series and a member of the Sisters in Crime national board, wrote her first story at age six, then turned her attention to other pursuits for a few decades. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and attended college in Ohio and Pennsylvania. After 25 years as an accountant, she retired with her husband Norman to Hilton Head, SC. Then her real work began, as she set about realizing her ambition to become a published novelist.

You started by self-publishing your first book. It was picked up by a small press, and before long you had a contract with St. Martin’s, so self-publishing led to good things for you. But would you advise other writers to go this route?

I always tell aspiring writers that self-publishing should be your last option, not your first. I'm on a lot of writing- and mystery-related listservs, and I can feel the angst of frustrated authors almost bleeding through the screen. And today, the temptation is so great to skip all that copying and synopsizing and submitting and simply go for it yourself.

My decision to choose iUniverse for the first Bay Tanner, In For A Penny, was made partly as a result of my age when I began the process (just shy of 50) and partly out of ignorance. I sent out 30 queries, all at one time, and didn't receive the final rejection letter for almost 2 years. At that rate, I figured I'd either be dead or in the 'home' before I ran through all my options.

Because the paradigm of the POD publisher was so new back then, I didn't have a lot of information about the drawbacks inherent in my choice: inadequate discounts, non-returnability, and so forth. Most writers today, thanks to networking, listservs, and blogs, are a lot more savvy than I was. And a lot of these drawbacks have been addressed and changed. I'm not certain knowing these problems up front would have deterred me, but it certainly would have made my life after self-pubbing a lot easier. There was a huge learning curve that writers today don't have to face.

But I had some things going for me, too. I received a lot of input from my critique group and intense editing by my retired English-teacher mother (who wielded a vicious red pen) and my Ph.D. in English sister-in-law, both of whom were supportive but critical. So I felt as if I had a good product to offer when I finally had it in hand. Thinking your first draft is ready for production is a huge mistake an unfortunate number of writers make.

Bottom line? With the proliferation of small mystery presses, there are a lot more options than I had ten years ago, but the goal for most writers has always been a traditional NY press. My advice is to do your best to achieve that goal, because the truth is that being able to name St. Martin's as my publisher carries a cachet that opens most doors. Will that change? Maybe some day. But for now, don't take shortcuts until you've exhausted your other options.

However, this is just my take. YMMV.

Could you expand a bit on the advantages and drawbacks of each type of publishing experience -- self-publishing, small press, and major press?

Please bear in mind that these are MY experiences. They're not universal, and others will undoubtedly disagree.

I can't say this often enough: Being published by one of the major NY houses is a good thing. It automatically conveys legitimacy (deserved or not) on your work and announces to the literary world that you have passed the test. It's not fair, but it's how things are. Chances are you won't make a ton of money or become a household name or get interviewed on Good Morning, America, but it's what serious writers strive for.

But . . . more and more, legitimate, royalty-paying small presses are giving the big boys a run for their money, and I say more power to them. We can all rattle off a list of the major players in this area who sign good and sometimes great writers, edit and advise, and publish quality products. These enterprises are worthy of our support and play a welcome role in giving mystery readers lots more books from which to choose. For the aspiring writer, they offer most of the perks of the majors while providing more author input and more hands-on attention from the editors. My small press was regional, not savvy about the mystery market, and that left me with most of the marketing to do on my own. Luckily, I was retired, so I had the time. Most folks aren't so fortunate.

Self-publishing--in the sense of forming your own company to publish your own books, as opposed to the pay-to-publish industry--can be satisfying but dangerous if you're not a business person by nature or training. You can lose your shirt . . . and pants, socks, and flash drives in a heartbeat. Succeeding at being both creator and producer--and marketing, art, and distribution departments--takes a rare person. It would be tough to manage with a day job and/or family that consumes the majority of your time.

If I had to name the biggest difference among all three types of publishing, I'd say the elephant in the room is distribution. The big boys have it. The small presses have it to a certain extent, but generally without the sales staff of a NY house, or the connections to the Baker & Taylor buyer, the Costco buyer, and so on. A self-publisher can get placement on, perhaps a local independent bookstore or two, but anything farther afield than that is tough. By its nature, this limits the number of books you can hope to sell in attempting to recoup your investment. Certainly there are people who have done it successfully, but, as a former accountant, I can tell you a lot of them went broke, too.

Sorry if my take on self-publishing sounds incredibly negative, but you can find lots of people who'll urge every writer to go for it, fulfill that dream, the hell with all those naysayers, just do it yourself. Like most things, though, it's a lot harder than it looks from the outside. Thus spake the former bean-counter.

You retired to South Carolina, only to launch a demanding new career as a mystery writer. Is murdering people in print more fun than accounting? (Okay, that’s not a serious question.) Did you ever imagine that you would spend your later years meeting deadlines and attending conferences and doing signings?

Of course murdering people is more fun than accounting. I had colleagues that will tell you ANYTHING is more fun than accounting, but I'm one of those weird people who actually enjoyed it.

From the time I was six I dreamed of writing things that other people would want to read. Unfortunately, not many other folks in my life saw that as a viable way to make a living, so I never received much encouragement. While I was practicing accounting, I began writing a historical novel, doing research at the library on my lunch hours because this was the pre-Internet days. (Did I mention in one of my previous answers that I'm OLD???) I managed to crank out an impressive 11 chapters in 8 years, and it dawned on me that I was going to have to wait a while before this dream came to fruition. But the drive never left me, and I was fortunate enough to be able to retire at 50, and I was off.

I attacked the process by taking some community-ed courses at the local college, hanging out with like-minded people, and helping to found a local writers group here on Hilton Head. I guess I never lost sight of the dream, and I'm basically stubborn by nature.

But no one was more surprised than I when it actually worked! I realize how lucky I am, despite the hard work. Lots of people work hard and never reach the goal. Folks helped me along the way--too many of them to mention--and serendipity played a huge role. No doubt about it, I'm a lucky woman, and I know it.

Aside from all the work involved, how has publication changed your life? Do you have any regrets about the loss of privacy and leisure time?

I think my husband says it best. Every once in a while, as we're driving up I-95 to another event or strapping into an airplane seat headed for a conference, he'll look over and say, "Didn't we retire? I distinctly remember retiring. I'm sure that was us."

There's no doubt it's a tremendous amount of work. Not the writing. That is the sheer joy of the whole process. But the attendant traveling and speaking (tough gig for a former accountant) can be wearing, especially for us gray-haired folks. I answer every e-mail personally; I try to participate in local fundraising events for charity; I try to accommodate local reading groups and libraries; I go to at least 3 or 4 conferences a year; I travel extensively around the Southeast; I hold office in both the Southeast chapter of MWA and the national Sisters in Crime board; and once in a while I stay home and clean the bathrooms. It does get hectic, and sometimes I get tired and think of that old saw, "Be careful what you wish for." But it was my dream for most of my life, and I'm living it. Bottom line, I wouldn't trade it for anything. As long as time and health permit, my husband and I will keep strapping on our travelin' shoes and making the rounds.

You’re not a native of the South, but you set your books there. What draws you to a southern setting rather than the area where you grew up? Do you think it’s easier to appreciate and describe a setting that you haven't known since childhood?

I was meant to be born in the South. I don't know what my parents were thinking when they decided to settle in Ohio. I've always felt an affinity for this part of the country, although I never traveled here until just before we bought our first beach condo in 1984. We instantly fell in love with Beaufort County, SC. The admixture of old and new, black and white, history and progress--we have it all here. Maybe that's why I can write so lovingly about it. Lots of us carpetbaggers subscribe to the old cliche, "I wasn't born in the South, but I got here as quick as I could." Another favorite is, "Southern by choice if not by birth." There are a lot of misconceptions about it--I know, because I shared some of them until I actually moved here fulltime in 1994. I've come to see a lot of what looked like negatives in a different light, my education springing from the wonderful true Southerners I've met over the years.

I guess I could have set the books in northern Ohio (a la Les Roberts) and maybe had just as much fun with them, but this just feels right. For me. For now. And when the wind is howling across Lake Erie on a bleak February night--and I'm sitting on my back deck in Hilton Head watching the sun set over the marsh and the herons take roost in the old live oaks--I know I made the right decision. For myself as well as for my books.

Some writers say they have trouble selling books with highly localized settings. Have you perceived any regional bias against southern mysteries among publishers, booksellers or readers?

I've long felt a bias, especially in NYC, about the South and Southern writers in particular. I once had a Big Apple member of the publishing world remark that she couldn't understand the appeal of Pat Conroy to the rest of the country. I wanted to say, "Excuse me?? They don't have dysfunctional families in Iowa? Or NYC, for that matter? Come on!"

I think maybe it stems from the fact that the South has been considered 'backward' by a lot of folks, for a variety of reasons we don't need to get into here, but which aren't necessarily valid, IMHO. Talk is slower. Movement is slower. Family is more important than work. You've heard them. So somehow mysteries in and about the South appear not to have universal appeal, at least in the eyes of some publishing folk. Labeling any book 'regional' can be a blessing and a curse. Of course, people from the 'region' may find it more appealing because it's set in their own back yard, but the very act of labeling seems to me to signal to people in Idaho that maybe this won't be their cup of tea.

When I first ranted about this issue on the DorothyL listserv, I used John Sanford's Lucas Davenport "Prey" novels as an example. I've never heard them called 'regional upper-Midwest police procedurals,' have you? Do we have a category called Northern fiction? Great Plains mystery? New England cozy? I don't know, maybe as a transplant I'm hyper-sensitive about it, but to me it comes out sounding like a pejorative, and I don't like it. I think in all aspects of the mystery genre we're getting too cute with the subtitles, and it isn't good for our industry. The characters and the story are just as important as the setting, and we ought to quit trying to pigeonhole every book that comes along. When someone calls my books "Southern regional cozies," I feel as if the folks who love Ed McBain or John Sanford or Laura Lippman or Tony Hillerman are being told, "This probably isn't for you." I'd rather my books be judged on their merits (or lack thereof) than on some label.

Okay, stand back. I'm stepping down from my soapbox now.

Quite a few women -- and some men too -- are publishing mysteries for the first time in middle age. What do you think an older writer brings to fiction that a younger person may not?

Life. Experience. Life experience. For those of you pre-baby-boomers who are eagerly eyeing the Social Security web site, you're a far different person from the twenty-something who emerged from college ready to change the world. Most of us who've reached middle-to-old age have come to realize that we've learned a lot along the way, some things in spite of ourselves, and that's what we have to share. A more mature outlook on the value and nature of relationships. The effect of evil on a small community of people. The ability of a single strong, moral individual to effect change. The heart of the mystery, IMHO.

I guess it's mostly about hard lessons learned, about failures and triumphs the young haven't been through yet. We know who we are and who we aren't. Careers are solidified, families growing or grown, most of the big decisions are behind us. And the best part is we're smart enough to realize that we still have things to learn as well as to teach. And for many, like me, there just wasn't any time back then when all our energies were expended on earning a living.

When I created Bay Tanner, I made her 38 years old. I chose that age because it was the one at which I finally felt as if I had a lot of the important things figured out, and I remember what that felt like. As she moves toward forty and beyond, I want to share some of the person I was then, from the been-there-done-that perspective. I guess that's as good a word to end on as any. We older folks have perspective.

What aspects of craft have you consciously worked to improve? What other writers have you learned from, and what has their work taught you?

I think if I began naming names of those writers who have influenced me, this interview would be a lot longer than it already is. Let's just say I read voraciously, constantly, in bed, in the kitchen, waiting in line, on airplanes--everywhere, all the time. I'm not one of those writers who have to read outside the genre, either. I want to be challenged by the really gifted mystery writers, to make myself better, to keep up with what's being published, but mostly just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

An early influence was Mary Higgins Clark. I admired Christie, but I never wanted to emulate her. When I read, "Where Are the Children?" I immediately said, "That's what I want to do." I felt the same about Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell. I like the idea, the continuity, of a series, the opportunity to develop characters over a number of books. I want to learn to create suspense like Higgins Clark, to create memorable characters, to bring the South I've come to love to such life that the reader is here with me. I read critically, too, trying to figure out why the masters of our genre became, well...masters.

I struggle most with plot because I don't outline. (I console myself with the fact that Stephen King doesn't either.) I find that if I set the whole story down, even if it's not a formal outline, I've lost my impetus, my reason for telling it. I need to let it unravel as it will, going back on subsequent edits to fill in gaps and rework clues. My Bay Tanner mysteries aren't necessarily whodunits. I strive as much to create atmosphere and character as plot, but it's the one element I have to work the hardest at.

What’s next for you and Bay Tanner?

I've signed a new contract with St. Martin's for two more Bay Tanners, so there will definitely be 2008 and 2009 books. After that, we'll see what opportunities come my way. I've dusted off that old historical I was working on back in my accounting days to see if I can reinvent it. Of course that early writing is embarrassing, but the setting was partially in the Lowcountry, and I'm wondering if I can rework it into a sort of prequel to the current series. Right now I don't have any extra time for other projects, but the mental pot is boiling. And I feel as if I still have stories to tell about Bay Tanner and Beaufort County, South Carolina.

Thanks so much for this opportunity to chat with you. I welcome your comments or questions. You can find me at

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The State of the Art in Time and Space

Sharon Wildwind

Next week I’m speaking to a local book club. As I always do before one of these gatherings, I thought about the state of the mystery art. Where are we today? Who’s hot and why? What’s the common thread running through the current crop of popular mysteries?

For the first time in six years, nothing leapt to mind. Had I not been paying attention? Hardly. I’m a great believer that if you’re going to write the genre, you need to both read the genre and read about it. I read five mystery-related lists, plus this blog. I subscribe to four mystery journals and I read every issue—maybe not for several months—but I do eventually read them. A big percentage of the movies I watch on DVDs are mysteries. I read, on average, two mysteries a week, chosen from the whole spectrum. Well, okay, I don’t read vampires and I don’t read the off-the-scale torture, rape, cannibalism ones. I don’t know, maybe there is some connection there, something about I don’t eat red meat either. Maybe I like my blood confined to emergency rooms.

So, getting a little desperate since the book club is now only nine days away and I have not one thing to say, I dropped back to my old standby. Say something about the current crop of awards. I started by looking at the best novel nominees for the Edgars (Mystery Writers of America) and Agathas (Malice Domestic Convention).

And there the threads were: old scandals, long-held family secrets, vanished places, cold cases, the cold war, a society struggling to come to terms with a war, denial of the past, hiding the past, and suede pixie boots as a symbol of the 1980s. Only two of the books were set in current time, and one of those dealt with the past coming back to haunt. The rest were either set in or had strong plot connections to 1830, 1836, 1931, 1975, 1984, 1987, and 1990.

I realized with some surprise that I write smack-dab in the middle of this trend. My books are set in the early 1970s for a good reason. The Viet Nam war and it’s immediate aftermath is the backdrop and I couldn’t just move the war to another time or another planet. Well, I could, but since the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, among others, has already done that so well, why try?

Writing the past isn’t only nostalgia. There’s something satisfying about writing a closed set, knowing past, present, and future of the context in which the story takes place. And setting a book in 1830 or 1975 gets rids of all that pesky technology. There are just so many times your heroine can forget her cell phone or not charge the battery. There’s just so much speculation characters can do about a suspect before someone says, “Why don’t we look him up on the Internet?” Which ever end of the criminalistic spectrum you choose, whether it be the CSI glamor-lab or the appalling length of time—years in many cases—that real law enforcement agencies have wait for evidence to be processed, the growth in forensic science and criminalistics means that your detective might as well go home and watch baseball until “the lab” solves the case for her.

None of my characters have those problems. I’m thinking of bringing in a character with a fax machine, but I’m not sure at this point that there are enough fax machines out there in 1974 for him to have anyone with whom to correspond. Maybe I’ll just let him get a really good hi-fi instead.

The other trend I noticed is location, location, location. A couple of weeks ago, one of the mystery lists had a lively discussion about agents and publishers telling writers that any mystery set outside of New York City was doomed to failure. True two of the award nominees were set in New York: one at the military academy at West Point and the other in upstate New York, neither of which is exactly Times Square. The others were set in Istanbul, Scotland, England, an unnamed eastern country, California, Arizona and Kansas. Maybe the “experts” in New York should get out of town once in a while.

Oh, in case you want to read the nominees and winners, here’s a list

The 2007 Edgars (Mystery Writers of America)
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (the winner)
The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard
Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris
The Dead Hour by Denise Mina
The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard
Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer

The 2007 Agathas (a fan-based award, awarded at the Malice Domestic Convention)
The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard (the winner)
All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Messenger of Truth, by Jacqueline Winspear
The Saddlemaker's Wife, by Earlene Fowler
Why Casey Had to Die, by L.C. Hayden
Writing quote for the week:
You probably are familiar with the beginning of this sentence, but here is the whole thing in all its original glory.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, from the novel "Paul Clifford” (1830)